As host state for the ongoing XXI Commonwealth Games – Gold Coast 2018 – Australia’s largest sporting event of the decade, Queensland naturally wants to put its best foot forward by enthusiastically showing the world all its wonders.

So in conjunction with GC2018, which ends on April 15, Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) carefully curated familiarisation trips for media and other stakeholders, following the last leg of the Queen’s Baton Relay in various regions including Cairns, the Sunshine Coast and Fraser Coast, as well as Gold Coast and Brisbane.

I was lucky enough to jump onboard a six-hour Silk Airways flight from Singapore direct to Cairns (pronounced CANS), and savoured much of what glorious Far North Queensland has to offer, together with a great bunch of people including travel writers, a blogger, TEQ staff and even a former Olympian who doubled up as our “tour guide”! All I needed was to pack my swimsuit, hat, sunscreen, camera … and off we went!

Chasing waterfalls

It’s not every day you get picked up at the airport by a professional triathlete. Courtney Atkinson, from Mackay, Queensland, was specially chosen for the job as Ambassador for the Commonwealth Games so he could tell us all about his “own backyard” … and wax lyrical he did.

Our first mission was to travel south on a quest to chase waterfalls. After driving for about 65km, we arrived at the Babinda Boulders. The self drive option was a great choice as it enabled us to take in the glorious scenery – clear blue skies, unending stretches of sugar cane farms lining the Bruce Highway, and the mountainous backdrop of the Great Dividing Range.

Our hosts from TEQ had taken care of all the necessities for the drive: WiFi dongle, Tim Tams and Baked Oaty Slices. And Atkinson not only gave us a running commentary of all the sights we passed by, he also had suggestions for cafe stops (like the quaint little bakery in Babinda for some excellent meat pies and cream buns, for example.)

Travel Tip 1: Don’t just stick to the touristy stops, instead pick up as many pointers as you can from the locals, because it makes your travel experience all the more authentic!

Cairns

The tranquil swim-hole at Babinda Boulders in Queensland, with its cool, crystal clear waters.

Babinda Boulders is home to a lovely swim-hole, which is relatively untouched. Every now and then a courting couple, bunch of friends or someone who’s just knocked off from work will come along and jump in for a cool (okay, for me it was downright chilly!), refreshing swim. But don’t expect any frills or fanfare. Three unassuming boards welcome you, paying respect to the traditional custodians of the land and acknowledging Babinda’s world heritage values.

Situated in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, the Boulders are nestled in a lush, diverse rainforest, and its crystal clear, freshwater weaves through a creek lined with giant boulders. Just behind the Boulders is Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland’s tallest peak, from which the cool water originates. It’s an idyllic spot for those who love a pristine outdoors experience.

And for those who like a bit of folklore, there’s a haunting legend to pique your interest. The infamous Devil’s Pool, just a few hundred metres away from the swim-hole, tells of a young woman called Oolana from the Yidinji tribe who lost her true love here. Rather than face a life without him, Oolana threw herself into the waters and legend has it that her spirit still calls out for her lost love to return, while she lures young men to a watery grave.

Eerily there have been several deaths recorded here over the years. There’s even a plaque on the ground which beckons passersby to pray for the soul of a young man who visited in 1979: “He came for a visit and stayed forever.” One report by the Brisbane Times says that the Babinda court records show 11 people have died between 1959 and 1983, but it is widely rumoured that there have been more than 20 deaths (all young men!).

From Babinda we drove to Josephine Falls, a three-tiered waterfall, situated in Wooroonooran National Park. To get to it, you’ll have to walk about a kilometre through lush rainforest. What makes the bushwalk so lovely, is the cool weather and clean, crisp air. Even the torrents of water at the falls are clean and fresh, and you’ll find lots of people jumping in for a swim.

Cairns

Josephine Falls, just outside Cairns, in Queensland, is a three-tiered cascade waterfall with a natural rock slide, set in a lush rainforest.

After taking loads of selfies and wefies at this picturesque spot, we headed off to Mission Beach where we spent the night at Castaways Resort and Spa, a lovely little hotel by the beach. Mission Beach could easily pass off for somewhere in Asia – in fact, lots of people who saw my photos on Facebook asked if I were in Terengganu or Kerala!

Watching the sunrise was fantastic, and Atkinson woke up early so he could go for a run, claiming that one of the nicest ways to see a place is to run through it!

Travel Tip 2: Don’t forget to pack your running shoes; wake up before everyone else and run through the streets and beaches to make the most of your time when you’re on holiday.

(Read more: Aussie athlete Courtney Atkinson’s exciting Queensland life and times)

Paddle forward

The next day we headed for Tully, a small town in the Cassowary Coast Region. Though we didn’t see any cassowaries here, we did go white water rafting down the Tully River, a premier rafting location with grade 3 to 4 level rapids (and also recently announced as home to the 2019 IRF World Rafting Championships).

We had hoped to catch sight of the Queen’s Baton en route, but because of the torrential rains the week before, parts of the roads and river were closed to the public and the relay was delayed. We did, however, manage to go rafting on a shorter stretch of the river and it was a whole lot of fun.

Cairns

The Queens Baton, carried underwater by batonbearer Tony Baker, at the Great Barrier Reef, in Australia, on March 15.

It’s a nice drive from Tully town to the Gorge, where the rafting trips usually start. The drive is through lots of banana farms, including Mackay’s – one of Australia’s largest banana producers. (Tully has the highest rainfall in Australia, which makes it ideal for crops like bananas, papayas and sugar cane.) The guides from the Raging Thunder Adventures outfit were friendly and happy to fill us in on whatever we needed to know.

As for the actual rafting experience, carrying the raft was more difficult than I imagined but once we were in the water, I had a great little adventure.

Cairns

Rafting down the Tully River … a super fun experience.

Our river guide Dave quickly gave us a lesson on all the paddling terms and some safety tips, including how to stay in the raft. Some of the rocks here are slippery so having the right footwear is essential in order to get in and out of the rafts without slipping. Also you’re going to get drenched, so dress appropriately.

Travel Tip 3: Get quick drying clothes as the drive back to town is cold and you’ll be dripping wet.

Under the sea

When you’re in Cairns, you must make it a point to see the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). For two glorious days and one magnificent night, we got to stay out on the ocean on a pontoon (or floating platform) and have a whale of a time, snorkelling, diving, splishing and splashing in the Coral Sea, and sleeping out under the great Southern sky!

We boarded the Sunlover Cruises catamaran from the Cairns Marina bright and early and headed out to Moore Reef, about 40km away from shore onto the Outer GBR.

Snorkelling in Moore Reef. We got to see curious creatures of the sea including a pineapple sea cucumber which our guide said we could touch.

Sunlover Cruises offers a day trip that comes with lunch and about four hours of swim time. The cruises are packed with tourists so be prepared to battle for shrimp at the buffet table!

The GBR is, naturally, an experience I would strongly suggest you put on your bucket list. And Moore Reef allows you to see a lot of coral and sea creatures up close (we bumped into loads of fish including surgeonfish, clownfish, giant clams, a Maori wrasse and a turtle).

The sad truth, however, is that coral bleaching events that devastated the GBR in recent years have taken their toll, and hordes of tourists who don’t respect and care for the environment continue to add to the reef’s woes.

One of the things the guides will tell you is to go easy on the sunscreen, or to make sure you apply it on your skin early so that it doesn’t just wash off into the water and enter the marine environment. (Common chemical sunscreen ingredients, such as oxybenzone, can kill coral and damage coral reefs.) Also, touching coral and marine life is generally a no-no.

But one of the things I love about Australia is the way its people nurture a love for nature. So they never really tell you you can’t do this or that. In fact, one of the guides let us touch a pineapple sea cucumber (which incidentally houses fish in its anus, but that’s another story) while we were out in the ocean.

Touching fish can often be very stressful to the animal, so National Parks broadly discourages it, but in certain situations when the impact of touching an animal will encourage people to love nature, the rules are relaxed a little.

Luckily the pineapple sea cucumber doesn’t have a real central nervous system and so it probably does not feel fear like a fish or a turtle, so I didn’t feel terrible for touching it afterwards.

Travel Tip 4: Read up as much as you can so you respect the environment, people and cultures you are visiting! One of the reef etiquette guides I found online says “Don’t be a lemming” – i.e. don’t do something just because everyone else is doing it.

One of the best parts for this reef visit was that we got to stay the night as part of an overnight glamping experience called Sunlover by Starlight. It comes with a delicious dinner and breakfast prepared by the crew, private snorkel tours to parts of the ocean not accessible to day trippers, and is just vastly different from being onboard the pontoon with 200 other tourists.

The overnight stay is a quiet one when you get to enjoy the fresh breeze, incredible night sky and picturesque sunset and sunrise.

Travel Tip 5: Download an app to help you identify the myriad stars you will see. I could only identify Orion, but Sky Map (a hand-held planetarium app) helped me be wowed by so much more. And trust me, the night sky down under is truly magical!

Up in the sky

The final part of our reef journey was via Nautilus Aviation when we got to board a helicopter and fly over the GBR! This was a first for me (riding a chopper) so it was exhilarating, and getting an aerial view of the GBR truly gives one a different perspective of its massive scale and enormity.

The chopper dropped us off at the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, a cable car ride that takes you above eucalypt woodlands and vine-clad rainforests, over Barron Gorge and Barron Falls, and finally to the mountain village of Kuranda.

It was here that we finally managed to catch up with the Queen’s Baton which was being carried on the Skyrail through the Barron Gorge National Park. The locals were genuinely excited to catch a glimpse of it and it was lovely to see the community spirit and camaraderie the Commonwealth Games was inspiring in people.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is a 7.5km scenic cableway running above the Barron Gorge National Park, in the Wet Tropics of Queensland’s World Heritage Area.

For me, it had been an incredible week of experiencing Queensland in different ways – from bushwalking through jungles, interacting with waterfalls and gorges, sleeping on the ocean and flying into the skies – none of which I had been previously accustomed to as I usually sit at my computer and lead a very sedentary life! But these experiences brought me an enormous amount of peace and pleasure, which leads me to …

Travel Tip 6: Get out of your comfort zones and do the unexpected! Travel can truly be enriching!